Experts from around the world reflect on the challenges facing the higher education system
The UOC is leading an international cluster of universities working on good health and well-being in the context of sustainable development
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit societies across the globe hard, with major implications for health systems and professionals. The situation created by the spread of the disease has meant healthcare and education have had to be reorganized. In this context, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya's (UOC) eHealth Center and Globalization and Cooperation team are heading up the cluster working on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3, on good health and well-being, driven by the International Association of Universities (IAU). The SDG 3 cluster has been in charge of analysing the pandemic's impact on the healthcare model and has studied which transformations should be carried out in higher education to adapt to the social and technological changes, thereby improving the training of future healthcare professionals.
"COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of health as a universal right, so the lessons learned from the pandemic can help us rethink how we teach and prepare healthcare professionals. In this context, our vision is for higher education institutions to become agents of change in order to achieve comprehensive health and well-being for everyone," said Albert Barberà, director of the UOC eHealth Center.
The conclusions reached by this group of international experts indicate that the objective of public policies should be to progress towards socially responsible health education, which works in a collaborative manner with the community. Moreover, they call for the strengthening of an interdisciplinary and inter-professional approach to the curricula, as well as a greater presence of e-health and soft skills. In order to do this, they opt for continuing with the implementation of online education and call for an improvement in technological infrastructures, especially in developing countries.
These are the four main lessons of COVID-19:
1. Health and disease in an interconnected world
The global reach of COVID-19 has led experts to question single-country approaches to dealing with new diseases and public health challenges. Universities, institutions and governments cannot work in isolation in the face of global phenomena. "This pandemic has revealed the interrelationship between human, planetary and economic health, as well as the impact of socioeconomic inequalities and health inequities. In view of this situation, international collaboration is of key importance in order to be able to tackle global challenges and implement the 2030 Agenda," said Pam Fredman, IAU president. She is also the driving force behind the SDG 3 cluster, which is made up of universities all over the world that cooperate in order to form partnerships and give voice to academia, so as to promote good health and well-being.
This interdependence is one of the things that has been learned by the countries that, over the last few years, have been more exposed to various epidemics such as Ebola, cholera and HIV. In the words of David Serwadda, professor at Makerere University (Uganda) and member of the cluster: "We must ensure that students are aware that epidemics are not just local or regional problems, but that they have a global reach. When we hear news about an epidemic in Africa or the Middle East, future healthcare professionals should be aware that it could reach their community. What appears to be a problem affecting a far-off country is in reality facing us directly, from thousands of kilometres away."
2. Commitment to interdisciplinary and inter-professional education
According to the experts in the cluster led by the UOC, understanding health as a planetary phenomenon forces future healthcare professionals to ensure their curriculum encompasses other disciplines. The links between epidemiology, public health and global health are obvious in the case of COVID-19 and previous epidemics. The prevention of the transmission of a virus is not only a medical problem: it also involves dealing with climate change and conserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems. Thus, interdisciplinary training in public health and environmental sciences is necessary to avoid future health crises and, therefore, it is essential for the training of students," explained Marta Aymerich, professor at the Faculty of Health Sciences and Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research at the UOC.
Moreover, the group of experts also highlighted the impact of the evolution of the health system from eminently hospital-based care to person-centred care and community-based care: "This transformation means a change in the curricula, which strengthens training focused on community-based care, and also an increase in collaboration with professionals from other health areas, such as nursing," stressed Aymerich.
3. Learning to deal with uncertainty
In this environment in which work with the community and with other professionals will become increasingly important, experts recommend reinforcing the teaching of social skills, such as teamwork, leadership and communication skills, and emotion management. "Health workers have been faced with high levels of stress and complicated decisions during the pandemic. Therefore, now more than ever it is essential to teach people how to manage stress and deal with uncertainty. Health workers must be able to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances," pointed out Maria Niemi, adjunct professor at the Karolinska Institutet (Sweden) and fellow cluster member.
4. More e-health and online learning
The use of technology for learning and medical care is another of the aspects that has accelerated during the health crisis, and which the experts place emphasis on. "Health professionals need to be trained in e-health much earlier than before; for example, in order to identify the most effective medical applications, how to use social media to promote health, or discover how to apply data science to making medical decisions. This is knowledge that is learnt by practising, so online learning should be integrated into health education," said Aymerich.
In this respect, the experts are hopeful that the benefits of virtual learning and the collaborative approach promoted as a result of the pandemic will be maintained in the future. "We hope to use COVID-19 as an opportunity for transformation and that the changes in the way we teach and interact with the community are not reversed, and that we can continue to grow into a global learning community," concluded Barberà.
The 2030 Agenda's SDG 3: good health and well-being
The SDG 3 cluster is made up of a team of universities from all over the world, which work together in order to promote the understanding and use of SDG 3 on good health and well-being in higher education. The activities carried out have an international, multidisciplinary approach. It is made up of the University of Caldas (Colombia), University College Dublin (Ireland), Gadjah Mada University (Indonesia), the Karolinska Institutet (Sweden), Makerere University (Uganda), Western Sydney University (Australia) and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Spain), as cluster leader.
The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) are helping 21st-century global societies to overcome pressing challenges by studying the interactions between ICT and human activity, with a specific focus on e-learning and e-health. Over 400 researchers and 50 research groups work among the University's seven faculties and two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).
The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information:research.uoc.edu. #UOC25years